Malia had failed my ninth-grade English class for three consecutive quarters. She hadn’t come close to passing once. It wasn’t for lack of ability; her writing was far from polished, but it had voice. Rather, she was failing because she simply did not complete work. English was not her only class where this was the case. In math, biology, and social studies, the same patterns persisted.
Three quarters of the way through her freshman year, Malia was already severely behind in earning the credits she needed to graduate. Her window for error was shrinking by the month.
When the final quarter of the year started, Malia (a fictitious name, as are the rest here) approached me. She said, “Mr. Mah, I’m going to try my best this quarter. No more excuses.”
True to her word, she attacked her work with a focus I hadn’t seen all year. She aced her first two reading quizzes. She emerged as a leading voice in student-led seminars. She wrote a powerful, deeply personal essay about her father’s incarceration, which she asked to share with the class.
Almost overnight, she made the decision—the commitment—to prioritize her education, and the results were astounding. When her transcript for the year was released, her English-class grades read: F, F, F, A.
‘You Believed in Me’
When I asked Malia what had changed in her motivation, she said, “You told me you believed in me even when my grades were bad.”
I wish that I could say Malia was one of my many students who made a drastic turnaround in their academic work. I wish that I could say she was one of many whom I inspired through encouragement and high expectations. I wish I could say that Malia’s story was typical of the countless small but rewarding moments that make this grueling profession worth it.
But to do so would be dishonest. Like most teachers, I entered this profession determined to change lives, to raise kids’ voices through literature and writing, to establish a community of learners with lofty aspirations. I wanted my “Stand and Deliver” moment, and I believed it would happen.
The truth is, though, that for every Malia, I have three Jaimes and five Serenas, students who fail classes or act out not because they are incapable or bad kids, but because they are homeless, or because they have to care full-time for a sick parent, or because they just lost a relative to gun violence, or because they come to class high to cope with PTSD, or because they have been sexually abused, or because of any of the other endless atrocities that our society commits every day against our most vulnerable kids.
The Exception, Not the Rule
Malia’s story is powerful, but it is the exception and not the rule. Teachers don’t get wins like that often. In schools that serve students like mine, a win is having Gloria tell you she hasn’t self-harmed in two weeks. A win is having Evan, who cussed you out in October, greet you by name and with a fist bump in June. A win is getting Ayesha to commit to not punching Shari in the face—at least not for the next three periods.
These wins (all of which actually happened in my classroom this year) are meaningful, but they are rarely told because they don’t fit the neat narratives we like to construct about student achievement. Instead, we hold up stories like Malia’s because they are inspirational; they tell us that kids can do it if they just try harder.
Similarly, the narrative of teachers as miracle workers appeals to us because it is uplifting and affirming. It allows us to say things like, “A good teacher can offset the effects of poverty and racism,” and believe them. There is power in these narratives, too, but by telling them to the exclusion of those others, we excuse systemic failures by exalting individual success. It gives us heroes to praise when kids succeed, and an excuse to look the other way when they don’t.
All over the country, there are kids just like Malia, whose talents and abilities have no ceiling other than the ones that we have constructed for them. Teachers may be the levers that can move kids out of poverty, but the conditions in which teachers are asked to do their jobs are the fulcrum.
If we are serious about improving public education for our students, we need to start by telling a different story, one that begins before well before students set foot in school.